Pink flowers covered in a thick layer of ice. In the background there is evidence of recent snowfall.

What does El Niño mean for North Carolina this winter?
Take extra care with your winter weather safety preparations this season, as the El Niño pattern is expected to cause a wetter winter than usual.

NC Emergency Management professionals break down what El Niño means for North Carolina's winter weather forecast and how you can be prepared for potential frozen precipitation anywhere in the state.

Author: Meredith Hemphill

You may have heard on the news that a weather system called El Niño is going to make this winter a wild one. It sounds a bit alarming, but to misquote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t panic and always carry a blanket. Let’s break down what El Niño means for our winter weather forecast and how you can be prepared for whatever frozen precipitation comes our way.

What is Happening With El Niño

El Niño is a global atmospheric pattern that reoccurs every several years and changes how the weather behaves in many places. Increasing temperatures in areas of the Pacific Ocean tell meteorologists that we are currently experiencing a strengthening El Niño. For the past three years, our weather has been subject to the opposite system, La Niña, which tends to cause dry winters in the southeast. El Niño, however, brings moisture into our atmosphere and causes more precipitation during the winters. The last five El Niño periods in North Carolina have also brought warmer than average winters. Due to the recent drought conditions and the slow buildup of the current El Niño system, the North Carolina State Climate Office predicts that it will take a while for us to see most of the impact of these weather changes. They expect the wetter-than-normal conditions to arrive in January/February. While seasonal snow forecasts are complicated, historical odds favor at least one measurable snowfall for most of the state this winter.

Winter Weather Safety Tips

Preparing Before a Storm

“Preparedness is key to enduring any event where you may find yourself on your own for several days to a week,” said Will Ray, Director of North Carolina Emergency Management. “One key to protecting you and your family is to have a family emergency plan and practice it so everyone in your household knows where emergency supplies are located, where to go and how to communicate with one another.”

Know Your Winter Weather Alerts

Family Emergency Kit

Before a severe winter weather event arrives, make sure you and your family are prepared. Have three days’ worth of non-perishable food, water and medications for every member of the household. One gallon of water per person per day is a good rule of thumb. Check that your emergency kit is stocked up and nothing is broken or expired. Include extra batteries for flashlights and weather radios—and make sure you have those things, too. Stock up on fuel for whatever alternative heating source you’ll use in case the heat goes out. Remember, never burn charcoal indoors! Have a fire extinguisher on hand, and make sure everyone knows how to use it.

Don’t forget about pets! 

Pets should have an emergency kit too, with their own three- to seven-day supply of food, water and any medications. Include copies of their vet records, a pet first aid kit, and their carrier or crate. Bring pets inside when temperatures drop below freezing and move livestock or other large animals to shelter with food and water before winter storms hit. Make sure their water source isn’t frozen. You can buy heaters for this purpose.

Staying Safe During a Storm

Avoid going outside during severe winter weather events. If you must, dress warmly. Wear layers, and make sure to cover your face and extremities. However, most deaths that occur during winter storms are not a direct result of the weather. Traffic accidents, house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning are common dangers. Only run generators outside, and make sure to keep them away from windows, doors, and vents. If you use a kerosene heater, be careful to keep the area well ventilated.

It’s best not to drive during wintery weather but keep an emergency kit in your vehicle just in case. This should include blankets, a flashlight, a scraper, jumper cables, tow chain, sand/salt/cat litter for traction, a first aid kit, and a road map and compass. If you must travel during bad weather, leave plenty of space between your vehicle and those around you, and reduce your speed. If conditions worsen, especially if you don’t have the visibility to see where you’re going, pull off the road and stay in your vehicle. Do not leave unless you can see a nearby building that you can walk to and take shelter in.

Winter Weather Resources

North Carolina Emergency Management and the National Weather Service work together to help North Carolinians plan and prepare for winter weather by providing accurate weather and safety information. Make sure you follow NCEM and your local NWS office for the most up-to-date information.

For more information on how to prepare for winter storms and other hazards that affect North Carolina, visit